Reparations is an idea whose time has not yet come, but agitation for it — reimbursing black folks for damage done to their slave ancestors — thrives in certain quarters. Books and magazine articles keep up a steady buzz, and legislation has been introduced in Congress to study if and how reparations could work.
The idea is not new. Republican politicians promised freed slaves "40 acres and a mule" at the conclusion of the Civil War, and many innocently gullible ex-slaves believed them. Why not? Politicians have been deceiving us all since the serpent, the earliest known politician, strolled the Garden of Eden whispering sweet and seductive promises to Eve, the first girl who couldn't say no. (We know how that turned out.)
Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, Lincoln's favorite firebug, actually seized land for "agrarian reform," issuing Special Field Order No. 15 confiscating 400,000 acres along the coast of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida to be divided into parcels of 40 acres each for the 18,000 freed slaves who had joined his march of indiscriminate fire and plunder from Atlanta to the sea. Sherman wanted mostly to get these camp followers off his hands, and his order was soon rescinded by Andrew Johnson, the new president who assumed office on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The freed slaves never got their 40 acres, nor even the mule, but the dream did not die.
But how to do it, even if Congress wanted to try it? That's the question. Should all blacks, even those who came to America after the end of slavery, share in unearned bounty? Should blacks with white ancestry get as much as blacks without it? That seems hardly fair and just. Who should pay for such largesse? Shouldn't descendants of Union soldiers, who in the popular understanding of history shed their blood and risked their lives to free the slaves, be immune from further levy now?
Punishing the South seems obvious and easy, though millions of modern-day Southerners are descended from men who had nothing to do with imposing slavery, and whose ancestors were innocently fleeing Cossacks in Europe and war lords in China when New England ship's captains were profitably sailing into Boston with their miserable human cargo. Shouldn't their descendants pay up at last? And how should the descendants of slaves be paid, in cash or in kind? Should something be paid to descendants of the thousands of white indentured servants who were regarded and treated as slaves, many of them for the rest of their lives?
"Reparations in America have come to mean 'free money,' " says Theodore Roosevelt Johnson, a retired Naval officer and one-time White House fellow, writing in The Washington Post, "so any serious discussion about [reparations] also mandates a discussion of how much — an exercise doomed to failure. Other ways of imagining reparations . . . don't involve cash payments, but they also don't do enough to combat the structural disadvantages black Americans face — disadvantages that have gone largely unaddressed by our legislative and executive branches."
The bill for reparations would be a big one. Boris Bittker, a Yale law professor, argued 40 years ago that the simple way to figure who gets what is to multiply the number of blacks by the difference in white and black income. In 1973 this would have come to $34 billion, and a lot more than that now. By now that money would have all been spent, and the cash would have hardly put a dent in the difference.
President Obama's legacy, over which he obsesses with such passion, will be the further separation of the races, further racial resentment and rage, further distance between here and racial reconciliation. But if money can't fix things, Theodore Roosevelt Johnson thinks he knows what can. He prescribes radical inequality and a thumb on the scale: Make black votes count more than white, and the politicians, with their antennae forever aquiver in search of survival tips, will quickly get the message. In no time at all the rough places will all be smooth.
Reversing the constitutional formula of counting slaves as three-fifths of a free — i.e., white — person, done to weaken Southern strength in Congress, Mr. Johnson would count black votes as five-thirds more than a white vote. This abandons the ideal of "one man, one vote," he concedes, but so what? If racism lies at the heart of what ails America, more racism might cure it.
It's a novel idea, and this is the summer of novel approaches to intractable problems. Or we could give other medicine, like furling the Confederate flag and shooting cops, more time to work. Or we could become a serious country again, looking for real solutions to real problems.